B-29 Bomber Names in the Pacific

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REPRINTED FROM: Literary Onomastic Studies, 1983, Volume 12, 161-166


Edwin D. Lawson
State University of New York at Fredonia

The current wave of nostalgia is also of interest to onomaticians. Let us go back to World War II and the B-29 bombers that operated out of the Marianas and attacked Japan.

Many people, of course, know about the Enola Gay, the B-29 that dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima. What may not be generally known is that virtually all combat B-29's had distinctive names. This was somewhat unusual since the other bombers such as the B-17, the Flying Fortress, and the B-24, the Flying Boxcar, rarely had individual names.

There is quite a precedent for the naming of airplanes: Lindbergh's Spirit of St. Louis and Wiley Post's Winnie Mae are just a few. Boats and ships are named. Some people name their cars, some their homes. Truckers name their vehicles.

I was a member of the 882nd Squadron of the 500th Bomb Group of the 73rd Wing based on Saipan. My original plane was Z Square 22. How did the naming and identification work? In training in the United States there were no markings at all. The markings appeared only when the planes were prepared for combat overseas. At first, members of the flight crew were allowed to have a name of someone (usually a wife or girlfriend) painted on the fuselage at the person's position (though one individual had the war cry Oskee-Wow-Wow of the Fighting Illini painted at his position). The names of ground crew personnel were also sometimes painted on the planes.

Shortly after arrival overseas, the planes blossomed with distinctive nose art. This would have been around November-December, 1944 for those based on Saipan. A few months later, there was a brief period when the pictures were ordered removed, but the order was apparently revoked or ignored because most of the nose art stayed on.

Most of the air and ground crew assigned to a plane preferred to refer to it by its distinctive name such as Supine Sue, Slick Dick, or Leading Lady rather than by Z Square 27 or A Square 10.

Most of the drawings were attention-getters and servicemen from all branches from all over the islands would come to the airfields to see the various examples. There was quite a bit of pride associated with the plane, its name and drawings, and its combat records by air and ground crew.

I was able to obtain 116 photographs of the approximately 1000 B-29's that were combat-ready. The photographs were placed in the categories shown in Table 1. About half of the drawings have a theme which is rather saucy or sexual. Another major category is Cartoon/Caricature. Other categories include: Whiskey, Unique, Persons, Logo + name, and Name Only.

What motives were served by the nose art? Certainly, many show a sexual need, aspiration or desire. But there are other motives as well. Some are listed with examples in Table 2.

Some of the names probably served more than one motive. In any event, the naming of the airplanes was clearly an important morale factor. Attaching a name to a war machine was merely one attempt to humanize a brutal war (out of an original 10 airplanes, my squadron lost 13; this includes replacements that also went down). By naming objects in his world, man attempts to show possession and some form of control.

Table 1. Categories of Nose Art: 20th Air Force, 1944-45.
Examples of the names of the airplanes are shown for each category.

Categories 73rd Wing Other Wings Totals
  N % N % N %
A. Saucy/Sexual: 32 57% 24 40% 56 48%
Adam's Eve
Ancient Mariner

B. Cartoon/Caricature: 8 14% 12 20% 20 17%
Slick Dick
Flying Jackass
Special Delivery

C. Whiskey: 3 5% - - 3 3%
American Beauty
Four Roses

D. Persons: 1 2% 2 3% 3 3%
Eddie Allen
Miss Hap

E. Unique: 2 4% 3 5% 5 4%
Always Be a Christmas

F. Logo + Name: 5 9% 9 15% 14 12%
Gravel Gertie
Flagship 500
Kansas Farmer

G. Name Only: 5 9% 10 17% 15 13%
Filthy Fay II
City of Los Angeles

Totals: 56 100% 60 100% 116 100%
Note: While it is not possible to show illustrations of the nose-art in this article, the interested reader may find a number of examples in the references.

Table 2. Motives and Naming of B-29's

Motive Type   Examples
A. Sexual   Adam's Eve, Censored,
Double Exposure
B. Attention-getting   Most of those in A; others
C. Ego-enhancement  
Pilot   Slick Dick, Bock’s Car
Entire Crew   Lucky ‘Leven, Les’s Best,
Jokers Wild
D. Aggressive   Beaubomber, Devil's Delight,
Wichita Witch, Satan's Sister
E. Humor   Honeybucket Honshos, Ancient Mariner
G. History   Ramp Queen, Gravel Gertie,
Postville Express
H. Honoring  
Individuals   Admiral Nimitz, Eddie Allen
Organizations   CB’s, Aviation Engineers

Reference Notes

Appreciation is expressed to Ronald R. Warren and staff of the Instructional Resources Center, State University College, Fredonia for assistance In restoration and copying of old photographs.

Since this article was begun, additional sources of photographs have been brought to my attention: Anderton, David B. B-29 Superfortress at War. New York: Scrlbner's, 1978; Birdsall, Steve. B-29 Superfortress in Action. Carrollton, Texas: Squadron/Signal, 1977; Birdsall, Steve. Saga of the Superfortress. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1980; Pimlott, John B.


Letter to Dr. Fiedler

Time rushes by. It certainly does. And as we get older,it seems to go even faster. When I was younger and heard old people (say, fifty) say this I didn't understand how this could be true. Now that I am forty, with my own children growing up, I can certainly see the truth in the statement.

But the idea of time passing so rapidly hit me vividly, late other evening, when listening to our local FM station. I heard a recording of the Boston Pops, Arthur Fiedler conducting, of Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue. As the clarinet sounded I thought again of one earlier important occasion when I had heard that same maestro with the same orchestra and the same work.

Back my thoughts went over twenty-five years to the time I was stationed at Saipan where we were based against Japan.

In order to clarify this I should explain that I was raised in Boston. As a youngster I was "exposed" to the cultural advantages of the typical middle class Jewish family: the Fine Arts Museum, the old Museum of Natural History, Jack Gardner's Palace, the Arnold Arboretum, Children's Museum in Jamaica Plain, and of course, concerts. Concerts in Jordan Hall, at the Esplanade, at Symphony Hall, children's concerts, band concerts, adult concerts, soloists, choruses. Much of it was way over my head, although I do have a clear recollection of Percy Granger playing "Country Gardens" in Jordan Hall. I also remember going to a Christmas concert of the St. Cecilia Society with Arthur Fiedler. At the age of 11 it was a big mystery to me why Arthur Fiedler would have anything to do with a saint’s society.

By the time I was in high school on Friday afternoons we used to rush down to Symphony Hall to get fifty-cent rush seats for the regular concerts. It was always a thrill to be able to get in, to run up the flights of stairs with a date, scrambling madly along to get a good seat. Then to wait for the concert to begin. One of my closest friends was Alan Rich who was destined to become a prominent professional music critic. Who would have thought so at the time?

We also had the Esplanade concerts on the Charles River embankment in the sun with the beautiful concert shell where there was no admission charge. We could just listen to the music under the stars and look at the lights of Cambridge across the river, sheer pleasure.

Then I went off to college, a few months of wonderful academics and I was in service. Once at Keesler Field I went to a piano recital in the post chapel of all places. I was startled to see the base commander attending, sitting in the same row with erlisted men. But on the whole I didn't hear much music. I trained in the Air Force and, of all things I was trained as a gunner and sent to B-29 school. In November, 1944, our outfit was at Saipan in the Marianas Islands and we were being briefed for the first raids against the mainland of Japan since General Jimmy Doolittle's raid.

I remember that very first briefing. The briefing officer told us to anticipate 1200 fighter planes against our 100 bombers, who would be going over in four precision waves. He also said something that I'll never forget—that they didn't know much about the situation in Tokyo but if anything happened and we bailed out, we should try to get to the Emperor's Palace. The Emperor was supposed to be more humane and we would have a better chance of decent treatment there. Fortunately, I didn't have to bail out over Tokyo but I often thought it would have been a bit ludicrous to ask a Japanese cop in English "Which way to the Emperor's Palace?"

Well, there I was at the first briefing. We didn't make the first mission. Two of our tires blew out on take-off and we aborted. But, I flew in several of the early missions.

Contrary to the American news reports, our first missions before General LeMay took over were very dangerous. We came a long way over the sea—1500-1600 miles. Japan still held Iwo Jima and we had no fighter protection. Our formations were terrible. We were spread out all over the sky. We often ended up in formations of stragglers from other bomber groups.

For one thing, no one had ever anticipated the terrific winds that we encountered. We lost time and wasted valuable fuel fighting them. The Japanese fighter planes gave us difficulty. On one mission I recall 65 fighter attacks. That was the day I burned out two machine gun barrels and they wanted to send me a statement of charges.

While fighter attacks were bad, you could at least shoot back. I think it was the anti-aircraft that worried us the most. It used to start just ahead of the wing and get closer and closer. I used to duck behind a useless gunsight. When the enemy flak got really close the explosion would rock the plane.

Now to the story in point. It turned out that our early raids seemed to be on Sunday afternoons. I remember that it was a bleak, gray Sunday afternoon. We were in the fourth wave of bombers. We started to receive the strike reports which are made as soon as a group hits the target. First wave of bombers “Anti-aircraft fire—fierce—intense—accurate.” Second wave of bombers reported the same thing, as did the third. I knew enough to know that this was no mllkrun, that we would certainly be in for it. But there was a good half-hour until we started our bomb run. I was all ready, the guns had been checked, test fired and checked again. Also, the parachute, Mae West, flak suit, flak helmet, gloves. There I was sitting in a plexiglas bubble in the semi-darkness, feeling more alone than I had ever been in my life.

Our radio intercoms were very ingenious devices. We could communicate with one another, we could override all other calls and we could listen to regular broadcast radio stations. Often far from our base at Saipan we could get other stations. Sometimes we could get San Francisco on a special broadcast beamed across the Pacific. This particular day I was in luck. I did get the San Francisco station just in time to hear the announcer say that the next recording would be Arthur Fiedler, the Boston Pops, and Jesús Maria Sanroma playing Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue. I felt choked up. I had heard Sanroma a few times and thought he was great. Hearing that composition that day thrilled me as no experience ever has. It was as if an old, trusted friend put his arm around me—there sitting in the gloom. That experience ended abruptly just before the very end of the performance—but I felt refreshed and able to take whatever might come. It was a dangerous mission and we did have trouble returning to our bases but the music I heard gave me confidence and trust.

When I returned to Boston after service the first recording that I bought was, of course, the Fiedler Sanroma Rhapsody in Blue on the old 78's. I still have the two records.

Now as I listen to the special broadcast in honor of your 75th birthday, I feel choked up again recalling across the years my association with your musical conducting and what this wonderful link has meant.


E. D. Lawson

Photo Examples (click image to view larger size)


Cartoons (click image to view larger size)

Comments can be directed to edlawson@netsync.net

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Last Modified 01/16/2008

Home | Biography | Recent Publications | Book Reviews
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